Repressed memories

Other Names:
Suppressed memories of abuse

The term repressed memories refers to the rare psychological phenomenon in which memories of traumatic events may be stored in the unconscious mind and blocked from normal conscious recall. As originally postulated by Sigmund Freud, repressed memory theory claims that although an individual may be unable to recall the memory, it may still affect the individual through subconscious influences on behavior and emotional responding.

Repressed memories have been reportedly recovered through psychotherapy (or may be recovered spontaneously, years or even decades after the event, when the repressed memory is triggered by a particular smell, taste, or other identifier related to the lost memory). However, there is debate within the scientific community regarding the trustworthiness of recovered memories and the ability to distinguish them from pseudo-memories, specifically as it relates to memories of childhood sexual abuse—a criticism popularized by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), which was created after founder Peter Freyd was privately accused of childhood sexual assault by his adult daughter Jennifer Freyd.

Despite sensationalized reporting of false repressed memories in the media, scientific reports show conflicting conclusions on the trustworthiness and possibility of repressed memory. According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, it is possible for adults to not remember episodes of childhood abuse, even in circumstances where there are definitive records that abuse occurred. However, the American Psychological Association also warns about the possibility of constructing "pseudo-memories" through problematic recovered-memory therapy sessions. As such, the APA reports that it is currently not possible to determine the veracity of memory without corroborating evidence.

In part because of the intense controversies that arose surrounding the concepts of repressed and recovered memories, many clinical psychologists stopped using those terms and instead adopted the term dissociative amnesia to refer to the purported processes whereby memories for traumatic events become inaccessible, and the term dissociative amnesia can be found in the DSM-V, where it is defined as an "inability to recall autobiographical information. This amnesia may be localized (i.e., an event or period of time), selective (i.e., a specific aspect of an event), or generalized (i.e., identity and life history)."

One study demonstrated of 100 women with a documented medical history of child abuse as children showed that 38% were unable to recall that abuse 17 years later. In the USA in 1993 it was reported that millions of dollars in insurance payments was underwriting years of therapy for thousands of patients who claim to have recovered memories of childhood abuse. The therapy may have been sought for other purposes supposedly quite unrelated to past abuse. Such recovery was virtually non-existent in the 1970s and is having a profound effect on the legal system. The statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse has been withdrawn in many states in the USA leading to criminal charges with awards up to $5 million.
Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
07.07.1999 – 00:00 CEST